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Conservation groups sue over predator killing program in Montana

Conservation groups claim Wildlife Services’ predator killing program in Montana is not based on the best available science and fails to adequately analyze the cumulative effects of its program on threatened grizzly bears.

(CN) — Three conservation groups sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services’ predator killing program in Montana on Wednesday, which kills or removes native predators in the state, including threatened grizzly bears. The lawsuit also challenges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services for approving the program’s predator control efforts, which lawyers for the conservation groups say remain “largely unregulated in the state.”

According to the lawsuit, led by WildEarth Guardians, Wildlife Services’ predator removal program is “intended to address damage livestock and agricultural interests from wildlife and feral animals.” To do so, the program targets a variety of predators, including gray wolves, red foxes, mountain lions, black bears and grizzly bears — the latter of which is, in most cases, protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Fish and Wildlife listed all grizzly bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, prohibiting the “take” of grizzly bears except for special circumstances. For instance, one could take a grizzly in the act of self-defense or remove a “nuisance bear,” aka one with a “demonstratable but non-immediate threat to human safety” or “significant depredations.” Otherwise, a take may occur for scientific purposes, but only if it does not result in death or permanent injury of the bear involved.

As such, the Wildlife Services’ predator removal program appears to mitigate the clause of grizzly bear take involving the Endangered Species Act, yet WildEarth Guardians claim the federal agency’s program and Fish and Wildlife’s approval thereof still violates the act because its very existence is not based on the best available science available.

“Wildlife Services’ and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to use and apply the best available science is ‘arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law’ and/or constitutes ‘agency action unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed,’” wrote WildEarth Guardians in the complaint.

More specifically, the conservation group claims the government agencies failed to consider how killing and removing grizzly bears between Montana’s recovery zones adversely affects the species’ long-term recovery.

“The best available science reveals that the lack of connectivity and genetic interchange between grizzly bears in Montana’s recovery zones and the bears’ absence from the Bitterroots remains a threat to long-term recovery of the species in the lower 48 states,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center representing the groups, in a statement. “But the agencies aren’t taking this into account before killing and removing dispersing bears.”

WildEarth Guardians also claim that, in violation of the Endangered Species Act, Wildlife Services must ensure that its predator removal program is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of protected species like grizzly bears and that its program does not make “any irreversible or irretrievable commitment of resources.”

To the latter claim, WildEarth Guardians say that the agency’s decision to continue killing grizzlies while waiting for Fish and Wildlife to issue a new biological opinion on its predator removal program in Montana “qualifies as an irreversible and irretrievable commitment of resources…”

Lastly, WildEarth Guardians claim Wildlife Services’ program violated the National Environmental Policy Act for failing to adequately disclose and analyze the cumulative effects of its program on grizzly bears, whether it involves the loss of food sources or the use of indiscriminate traps in ecologically critical areas.

In the 70-page complaint, for example, WildEarth Guardians listed several ways in which the federal agency allegedly killed grizzly bears and animals through indiscriminate killing practices.

WildEarth Guardians reported that, in 2021, Wildlife Services intentionally killed over 400,000 native species in the U.S., including 324 gray wolves, 433 black bears, 24,687 beavers and 714 river otters. The group wrote that the agency takes “roughly” ten grizzly bears a year in Montana through removal and sometimes killing. In contrast, the agency unintentionally killed 2,746 animals in the same year, including black bears, bobcats, songbirds, domestic dogs and grizzly bears.

To trap or kill predators, WildEarth Guardians claims that Wildlife Services’ uses a variety of indiscriminate devices to capture or kill predators in Montana, which are not limited to body-gripping traps, foothold traps and “snares” – i.e., cables made to snatch predators by the neck, body or foot.

“This lawsuit is the first step in exposing the dirty secret of predatory animal control ‘for livestock protection’ on our public lands,” said KC York, president and founder of Trap Free Montana, in a statement. “The systematic destruction of predatory animals, enshrined in Montana statute, is as alive and well today as when it was written 100 years ago. Montanans, and all Americans, should expect better from both our state and federal wildlife agencies.”

Trap Free Montana joins WildEarth Guardians in the complaint along with Western Watersheds Project. Representatives for Wildlife Services were not immediately available for comment.

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Categories / Environment, Government

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